A lot of people have asked me whether I visited the Hebrides while I was writing Beyond the Sea, set on a tiny (fictional) island off the coast of Mull, in the Western Isles of Scotland. The answer is yes. I love visiting the places I write about, to experience the mood and landscape first hand, to absorb the atmosphere. I find it easier that way to bring it to life on the page.
Very soon after I started writing the book, I found myself on a ferry leaving Oban (in mainland Scotland) for Craignure on Mull. The day was chilly and overcast, more like winter than autumn, and dark cloud hung low in the sky. Before long it was raining and a cold hard wind whipped me as I stood on deck, looking down at the churning sea, getting drenched but refusing to go inside.
As the ferry advanced up the Sound of Mull and we passed Duart Castle in the south east corner of the island, I remembered from my research that the Swan, a Cromwellian warship, had sunk at this exact spot on 13 September 1653 – almost 360 years ago to the day. I began to think of shipwrecks and sailors and letters in bottles and another strand of the plot began to emerge. It was an exciting day for me and one that remained imprinted firmly in my mind. This journey, made in 2013, is the same one taken by Freya in Chapter 1 of the novel.
I travelled all over Mull that autumn, circling the whole island on its single track roads, past the fragile beauty of the grassy machair, the towering grandeur of Ben More.
I watched sunshine break over Loch Scridain, turning its seawater brilliant blue, then saw it transformed to dull grey when the mist rolled in later that day.
I drove to Knockvologan on the south of the island, waited until low tide, and then crossed the exposed white sand beaches of the tidal island of Erraid (the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped). I trekked past the now abandoned lighthouse keepers’ cottages and tried to imagine what it would be like to live on a tiny island like this, isolation complete when the sea rolled back in.
I looked out across the vastness of the ocean and caught sight of the shadowy lighthouse, Dubh Artach, floating on the horizon, somewhere between land and sea, a mirage perhaps.
I travelled far and wide, looking, thinking, jotting in my notepad. I wanted to remember the sights, sounds and smells, the colours and tones of the landscape. I wanted to remember my smallness in the face of all this immense Hebridean beauty. And I wanted as much as possible to echo it faithfully in the narrative of my book.